Tongzhi (同志) is the contemporary Chinese word for a member of what Westerners might call the LGBT community. Originally a Chinese translation of “comrade,” tongzhi literally means “same will.” The word’s political import grew in the early twentieth century when Sun Yat-Sen, founding father of the Republic of China, used it to call upon the country’s citizenry to continue the revolution. By mid-century, the Communist Party adopted tongzhi as a genderless, classless term of address, evoking a shared vision of the collective good. Largely abandoned in favor of Western honorifics (like Mr./Ms.) in later decades, the term tongzhi reemerged in 1989 when activists appropriated it as a marker of collective identity for the first Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
In Mark McLelland's "Interview with Samshasha, Hong Kong's First Gay Rights Activist," Samshasha recalls growing up in Hong Kong in the 50s and 60s, negotiating the "4Cs: Colonialism, Christianity, Communism and Confucianism." As today's tongzhi protestors brandish picket signs emblazoned with buzzwords like "family" (家庭) and even "democracy" (民主) (see picture above), one wonders how these respectability politics have grown up out of such a cross-section of ideologies and identities (as tongzhi also encompasses various gender and sexual "minorities" – crossdressers, fetishists, etc.). What if we consider theories of norm diffusion – how a given context is influenced by "international norms" promoted by other countries and organizations? Norm appropriation argues a kind of bottom-up approach, wherein local struggles are "elevated" to the international level through the use of Western ideas, but a rejection of "Western semantic control" (1255). This idea has both been critiqued as a myth (perhaps even doublethink) and explained as an empowering paradox. Meanwhile, norm localization is a top-down method, wherein the adoption and institutionalization of international norms is predicated on their reconstruction to fit the local context. "Chicken or the egg" logic aside, both modes allow local political issues, such as equal rights for tongzhi, to be dealt with on a "universal"/global scale (i.e., "human rights") without conforming to a Western model like "LGBT" identity. But, at such pregnant political moment, is it possible to reverse this dynamic in the case of Hong Kongese tongzhi – such that local issues dictate international dialogues?